After enrichment threat, US accuses Iran of ‘nuclear extortion’

State Department says Tehran must abide by limits set in nuclear deal, despite Trump administration pulling out of accord and deriding it as flawed

FILE: Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the capital Tehran, on April 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP)
FILE: Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the capital Tehran, on April 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP)

The United States warned Monday that the world must not give in to Iranian “extortion,” after Tehran said it would surpass the uranium stockpile limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Washington.

“We should not yield to nuclear extortion,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, adding that the US was “unfortunately not surprised” by Iran’s announcement.

“We continue to call on the Iranian regime to abide by their commitments to the international community,” she said.

Iran had said that, as of June 27, it would have more than the 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of enriched uranium that it was allowed under the deal struck with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States.

US President Donald Trump last year abandoned the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under which Iran pledged to reduce its nuclear capacities for several years and allow in inspectors in exchange for sanctions relief.

Washington then unilaterally reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran.

Ortagus’s comments highlighted the awkward position the US has staked out in demanding that Iran keep to a deal it has itself pulled out of and derided.

Trump himself appeared to say the JCPOA should not be violated in a tweet that said “Iran to defy Uranium Stockpile Limits.”

Iranian technicians walk outside the building housing the reactor of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, in the Iranian port town of Bushehr, 1,200 kilometers south of Tehran, February 25, 2009. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP Files/AFP/File)

Asked whether the US was asking Iran to respect the agreement, even though Washington had withdrawn, Ortagus said the administration “will not tolerate Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, full stop.”

“It’s unfortunate that they’ve made this announcement today, but I said earlier it doesn’t surprise anybody. I think this is why the president has often said that the JCPOA needs to be replaced with a new and better deal.”

“So any action that they take to get a nuclear weapon will be countered by a maximum pressure campaign by the US government,” she added.

Administration officials found themselves grappling on Monday with whether to urge the remaining parties to the deal, including Britain, France and Germany, to demand that Iran stay in compliance. They must also consider if such a stance would essentially concede that the restrictions imposed during the Obama administration, while short of ideal, are better than none.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony in memory of Israeli presidents and prime ministers who passed away at the president residence in Jerusalem on June 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also appeared to back the deal, despite being one of its most vociferous critics. He urged the international community to reimpose strict sanctions, should Iran break the deal and begin stockpiling uranium beyond allowed amounts.

Supporters of the deal have blamed the administration for Iran’s provocative announcements, saying they were entirely predictable given the renewed US pressure.

“While Iran’s frustration with Trump’s reckless and irresponsible pressure campaign is understandable, we strongly urge Iran to remain in compliance with the nuclear deal,” the Arms Control Association said in a statement. “It remains in Iran’s interests to abide by the limits of the agreement and to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s more intrusive monitoring and verification.”

Iran has shown no willingness to negotiate another deal and vowed not to enter into talks while the United States administration maintains its “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions.

Iranian demonstrators burn a makeshift US flag during a rally in the capital Tehran, on May 10 2019. (Stringer/ AFP)

A senior US official said the administration is most concerned about any violation of the deal that would reduce the breakout time that Iran would need to produce a nuclear weapon. The deal aimed to keep the breakout time at one year.

The official said certain violations, while they should be not accepted, would not necessarily reduce that time. But other violations, including enriching uranium to 20 percent should be addressed immediately if they occur, the official said. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said it would be up to the Europeans to decide if Iran was in violation of the deal, and whether to initiate a dispute resolution mechanism that could bring the Iranians back into compliance.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet this week with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, a leading deal proponent, at which this issue is likely to be raised.

Pompeo, who was a leading critic of the deal while he was in Congress, has said in the past that Iranian compliance is not really an issue as the administration sees the agreement as fundamentally flawed because, over time, it eases many limits on Iran’s nuclear activities.

Yet, just last week, the US ambassador to the UN’s nuclear watchdog accused Iran of violating a provision of the deal that relates to advanced centrifuges and called on the Europeans to ensure that Iran remains in compliance.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday on called on Iran and the remaining signatories to continue to abide by the terms of the 2015 deal.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a meeting in the Tunisian capital Tunis on March 30, 2019, to discuss the situation in Libya. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

Guterres “encourages Iran to continue to implement its nuclear-related commitments and calls on all participants to abide fully by their respective commitments,” his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The UN chief also urged “other member states to support the plan’s implementation.”

“The secretary-general urges all parties to refrain from any steps that may lead to further escalation of tensions in the region,” the spokesman added.

Guterres said the agreement “represents a major achievement in nuclear non-proliferation and diplomacy” and has “contributed to regional and international peace and security,” the spokesman said.

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